Club Review: Philip Officer’s “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy”
When I teach vocal performance, one of the first things I stress to students is that performing in a cabaret space is more akin to film acting than stage acting. Subtle gestures, like a raised eyebrow or a simple smile, can be much more effective than the grand gestures and histrionics of a theatrical performance. Logical, natural phrasing can accomplish more than big notes and riffs. The intimacy of a cabaret can be shattered by too much indicating—a theatrical term meaning “to show what your character is feeling or doing without really feeling or doing, leading to a false and shallow performance.” The small stage area of a cabaret magnifies the problem when a performer pushes too hard and telegraphs what they, or the audience, should be feeling rather than getting the audience to feel along with them in whatever story or song they are performing. That smile may seem a bit too big and forced or inappropriately timed; that pause between lyrics or lines may be held a bit too long to get an effect the storytelling should have achieved; the enthusiasm of that delivery may seem a bit too facile or unwarranted; that wave of a hand or abrupt body movement may seem to come from the outside and not to arise from the situation or interpretation; that bow may happen a bit too early and kill the final moment of a number. It can occur when the performer is not at ease with the material, or does not trust it, or is not comfortable in their performance, or is under-rehearsed.
I had not expected to have these thoughts when I settled in to see New York cabaret royalty Philip Officer return to the city in Let Me Sing and I’m Happy at the Birdland Theater, but there they were. Perhaps without meaning to, he provided the reasons for my reaction when he revealed, in an early bit of patter, that he had packed up and left New York and the cabaret scene in 2008 and settled in Las Vegas where he became, among other things, a bartender. With COVID and quarantines, he began to embrace music and singing again and when cabaret (and Birdland’s Jim Caruso to be more specific) called, he was ready to get back on the boards. But if cabaret is like riding a bicycle, this particular return trip was wobbly, particularly in the first half, although he did relax and begin to reveal more of himself as the second half progressed.
What has never left him is his smooth, expressive, gorgeous voice. It remains quite special indeed, so even at the most forced of moments the sound of his singing was beautiful. To anyone who had seen him during his well-earned reign near the top of male vocalists in New York, it will come as no surprise that the song choices were equally fine, whether expected or unexpected. He surrounded himself with a dream trio of Erik Friedlander on cello, Kevin Kuhn on guitar and music director Mark Hartman on piano and vocals, with scintillating arrangements by Hartman and Officer. The one place the arrangements fell short was in the myriad of medleys that filled the show. Most, sadly, felt like “cut and paste” creations with one song abruptly slamming into another with little transition and little lyrical cohesion.
The opening medley had “It’s a Good Day” (Dave Barbour, Peggy Lee) awkwardly leading into Carole King’s “Beautiful.” They were both written by famous music women and they both have to do with mornings but neither enhanced the other. Officer seemed to almost be competing with the trio by trying to match their energy with his. Next came the title song by Irving Berlin joined to “The Gypsy in My Soul” (Clay Boland, Moe Jaffe) in more of a smash-up than a mash-up, but his vocals were less dramatized than the opener. “Old Friends” (Stephen Sondheim from Merrily We Roll Along) added Hartman’s voice and his more natural delivery put Officer’s exaggerated phrasing in unflattering relief. Another Sondheim, “Anyone Can Whistle,” allowed the singer to at last be conversational against a stunningly played arrangement. His pairing of “Landslide” (Stevie Nicks) and “Blackbird” (Lennon/McCartney) had a blessedly smooth transition between the songs, and I applaud the grammatical correction of “Landslide”‘s ill-considered lyrics. The idea of spanning decades by coupling “Believe” (Brian Higgins, Stuart McLennen, Paul Barry, Steven Torch, Matthew Gray, Timothy Powell, Cher) with “I Wanna Be Around” (Sadie Vimmerstedt, Johnny Mercer) probably seemed like a fun idea on paper, but in his overacted delivery Officer merely pointed up the weakness of the former song while undercutting the effectiveness of the latter. In yet another medley, “Old Friend” (Nancy Ford, Gretchen Cryer) led into Bernard Ighner’s “Everything Must Change” which turned into Stevie Wonder’s “All in Love Is Fair,” but the grouping didn’t do the songs any favors and diminished the brilliant “Change” to what seemed like “filler” status.
Officer let Kuhn and Friedlander shine in a give and take with his vocals on “I Love Being Here with You” (Peggy Lee, Bill Schluger) but even on this he pushed too hard against their effortless swing. Things improved considerably when he focused on Hartman with an inspired duet of “I’m Nothing Without You” (Cy Coleman, David Zippel from City of Angels). As both sang all out, Officer finally seemed to relax into his performance and wasn’t trying too hard to prove anything. He was having fun matching the energy and style of his music director. A Mabel Mercer classic, “Once in a Blue Moon” (Jerome Kern, Anne Caldwell), solidified the impression that he was at last and, impressively, on solid ground and just being himself on stage, although this too was marred by an unfortunate tic he had shown elsewhere in the set of what seemed like arbitrarily speaking the last words of lines for dramatic effect.
The show closed with one more medley in way of thanks to his director, Bill Russell, who must bear a goodly portion of the responsibility for the criticisms I have listed in this review. Philip Officer left the audience with a true picture of the major talent that he was— and is— as he confidently took the stage and let us come to him as he sang “I Will Never Leave You” (Henry Krieger, Bill Russell from Side Show in which Officer appeared on Broadway) and “Someone Beside You” (Janet Hood, Russell). Whether he had finally warmed up or had let his guard down since the show was almost over, this was the singer I had longed to hear all evening and the one I hope to see inhabiting the entire show the next time he returns to the city.
Presented at Birdland Theater, 315 W. 44th St. on September 26, 2022.
About the Author
Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”